In October 2004, I visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. One of the exhibits there is a Minuteman III ballistic missile. It’s not a very impressive-looking object, and I hadn’t paid much attention to it on previous visits. But this time, I stopped in front of it for a while.

It was only about a month since the terrorist attack on a school in Russia, in which 186 children were murdered. And it struck me that had this missile ever flown, it would quite possibly have killed thousands of Russian children very much like those who were murdered by the terrorists.

I am not a pacifist or a nuclear disarmer, and I am not making a moral equivalence argument here; not in any way suggesting that American missileers are somehow similar to child-murdering terrorists. At the dawn of the age of strategic airpower, George Orwell summed up the situation: “If someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother.”

While the argument that the only defense against air attack was retaliation proved to be somewhat overstated during WWII, in which radar-directed fighters and AA guns did provide some meaningful defense against bombing, the argument was quite true throughout most of the Cold War era, given the existence of unstoppable ballistic missiles. I think that as a country we did the right thing in building and deploying Minuteman–and Atlas, and Polaris, and Trident, and the rest of them. But we must never forget that these things are the instruments of nightmares, and words like “deterrence” and “nuclear umbrella” and “massive retaliation” should never be allowed to hide the underlying realities.

Recently, Hillary Clinton stated that–should Iran obtain nuclear weapons–we will protect countries in the region by including them under a “defense umbrella.” What does she mean by a defense umbrella?…given this administration’s hostility to antimissile technology, it should be pretty clear that she does not mean a comprehensive missile defense system. Rather, she means that the U.S. will retaliate against Iran with nuclear weapons should it launch a nuclear weapon at any of the protected countries. (During her Presidential campaign, Ms. Clinton spoke of “massive retaliation” by the U.S. against Iran should that country attack Israel with nuclear weapons.)

We now have a U.S. administration which:

a)Is not very interested in supporting dissidents seeking to overthrow the Iranian regime
b)Is not going to take any military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and seeks to discourage or prevent Israel from doing so. (I think Hillary herself is more positive toward an Israeli preemptive attack than is Obama–but she is only an agent here, not the primary decision-maker.)
c)Is reluctant to develop and deploy technologies which could shoot down Iranian nuclear missiles in flight
d)Basically seems willing to wait for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities (talking all the while about how “unacceptable” this outcome would be) and then, should these weapons be used to kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a country allied to the U.S., to kill millions of Iranians in response.

Or, at least, the Obama administration wants the Iranian regime to think that this would be the U.S. response to an attack.

Why do the same liberals and “progressives” who react with horror to any suggestion of conventional military action often speak so glibly about “nuclear umbrellas” and “massive retaliation”–phrases that in reality refer to the killing of millions of people? I think it is partly because they feel sure that these things will stay in the realm of words and never become part of the realm of reality.

About 10 years ago, a Los Alamos scientist was quoted as saying “Weapons designers play the societal role of witches in fairy tales–we scare people into behaving.” This captures very well the Cold War image of nuclear weapons–they are of the supernatural rather than the natural world; they belong to the realm of fevered nightmares rather than waking thoughts. And for more than 60 years, that is where they have stayed.

But today, we are dealing with people for whom the distinction between fantasy and reality is not always too clear. As I said in this post, “the threat that faces us in today’s world, though, is that the fairy-tale ogres will leave their home in the deep subconscious and emerge, their claws dripping with blood, into the daylight. Clearly, the Iranian leadership already lives in a mental world which is very close to the world of a dark fairy tale. Potential use of nuclear weapons is unlikely to fill them with the horror that it has long carried for most of the world.”

And how likely is it that the Iranian regime (and the North Korean regime) will take seriously any threats of retaliation from the likes of Obama and Hillary? Establishing a trend of appeasement leads to confidence on the part of the ones being appeased, and to the belief that “since they let us get away with X, they will let us get away with Y.”

19 thoughts on “Deterrence”

  1. This is where “realpolitics” breaks down. Under RP, we can imagine a future meeting:

    “Gentlemen, Iran has nuclear bombed Tel Aviv, Haifa, and a few other cities in Israel. Shall we retaliate? I think not, because killing more millions of people cannot help the dead. We must go forward with the living.”

    Under deterrence, a future meeting goes like this:

    “Shall we retaliate? We must, as our honor and duty, and to deter anyone else from doing such a heinous act.”

    Here we are now, before such nuclear action and death. Which philosophy is more likely to prevent such a future tragedy?

  2. News story from a few minutes ago:

    “Israel hardened its insistence Monday that it would do anything it felt necessary to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, just the ultimatum the United States hoped not to hear as it tried to nudge Iran to the bargaining table.

    U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reassured Israel that the new Obama administration was not naive about Iran’s intentions, and that Washington would press for new, tougher sanctions against the Iranians if they balk. He didn’t say what those might include.”

    whole thing here

  3. “Why do the same liberals and “progressives” who react with horror to any suggestion of conventional military action often speak so glibly about “nuclear umbrellas” and “massive retaliation”–phrases that in reality refer to the killing of millions of people?”

    Because they don’t take such things seriously and they’re not fun?

    Interesting how in a situation where the rationale for MAD does not apply, and we really could defend ourselves and our allies (at least against missiles and airplanes), the liberal who posture as peace-loving want to apply the rules of MAD to foreclose any option except Armageddon. Because, y’know, it’s more important to score moral or debating points (like with cap-and-trade, too).

    Real-world consequences are someone else’s problem, tho when the liberals are the ones in power, it’s not at all obvious who that someone ese might be. It was easy to posture against Bush-Cheney for 8 years, because in the end they were responsible.

    Of course, looking at Hillary’s utterly idiotic statement about how the Industrial Reviolution was a mistake because it was based on CO2-emitting technology, Occam’s Razor suggests maybe the simplest answer to all this is just that they are lazy, ignorant and stupid when it comes to foreign policy and defense.

  4. “Gentlemen, Iran has nuclear bombed Tel Aviv, Haifa, and a few other cities in Israel. Shall we retaliate? I think not, because killing more millions of people cannot help the dead. We must go forward with the living.”

    The reality, I suspect, would be … “And, gentlemen, there is nothing for us to do about it because Israel already fired off massive retaliatory nuclear strikes before the Iranian missiles were halfway across Iraq on theor way to Israel.”

    Isarael is neither ‘realpolitics’ not ‘deterence’ minded. They are old Testament, and in such circumstances, I don’t think they would wait around to hear Barrack or Hillary’s opinion.

  5. Most US and international press have labeled George Bush´s policy towards Iran as agressive and cow-boy like, now there´s an American president labeled as a pacifist at heart.

    But while the Bush adminstration´s stand on Iran was hard, it was also intended to keep israel away from attacking or engaging Iran, Israel remained calmed for the most part.

    Conversely, Obama´s soft approach to Iran is causing the Israel leaders to worry about the Iran growing more confident and bolder in their goals to produce nuclear devices.

    In the absence of strong world leaders opposing and discouraging Iran from obtaining nuclear capability, Israel will feel they are by themselves facing the threat.

  6. Bear in mind that an Iranian nuclear weapon–particularly when combined with ballistic missile delivery–would threaten countries other than Israel, and most of these countries do not now have an independent nuclear retaliation capability.

  7. Nixon proposed an American security guarantee for Israel. Golda Meir’s response was, “By the time you get here, we won’t be here.”

  8. A decision by America to allow Israel to attack Iran could well prove to be the start of WWIII and the worst foreign policy error of the 21st century. Once ICBMs are fired from Israel, with or without nuclear warheads, then everyone living today could suffer the consequences.

    Iran’s likely response to an unprovoked attack, will be to close the Straits of Hormuz meaning the global price of oil will double or quadruple; stock markets around the world will crash; Iranian cells in the US and Europe will activate; Iran will fire long-range missiles at Israel who will then have no option but to escalate the conflict with a massive nuclear strike that will turn the entire Gulf region into a giant fireball.

    From Alaska to Mexico and from London to Oman and Karachi, the eventual consequences are unknown – but the world will have changed and we will all have to bear the cost of scarce oil, sky-high prices, falling investments and damaged economies.

    To this scenario must be added the massive loss of life through the use of nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction with the resultant contaminating radiation and genetic damage.

    All this because one single politician, from a country that hasn’t initiated a war with anyone for hundreds of years, indulged in rhetorical hyperbole which has been used as an excuse by others to further a self-serving, nationalist agenda to retain hegemony in the region.

    In the early 1960s, US Secretary of Defence, the late Robert McNamara made a similar foreign policy error of enormous magnitude which resulted in over 4 million deaths that included 58,000 Americans. It took him more than 20 years to admit to his catastrophic error. He died, racked with guilt and remorse.

    However, in that terribly tragic and futile conflict, no nuclear WMD were deployed by either side. Today, would be very different.

    We need to use our voice to prevent this so-called pre-emptive attack. We need to talk and negotiate – not to bomb, kill and terminate the lives of thousands of innocent men, woman and children.

  9. Colindale..

    Do you really think the brutality of the Iranian regime is the result of the actions of “one single politician?” Do you think that the apocalyptic religious beliefs that drive this regime are limited to a single individual?

    Ralph Peters: “One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuititive recognition of our enemies.”

  10. The problem with a notional “defense umbrella” is that it would require us to pre-commit to bright line rules for the use of nuclear weapons. If you don’t tell your adversary what actions will trigger an apocalyptic response, then he is not deterred and the logic of MAD fails. It is very hard for me to imagine the current administration (or any of its post-Cold War predecessors) successfully putting such a policy in place.

    Perhaps fortunately for US policy makers, Israel has much more at stake here and understands the logic of deterrence perfectly well. So assuming that the US government will behave as Colindale wishes them to – acquiescing in Iran’s acquisition of nukes and restraining Israel from preempting – then we will have two regional states putting MAD into practice once again. Let us hope that it proves as stabilizing as it did between the US and USSR.

    One thing missing in this, however, is other gulf states that find a nuclear Iran unacceptable, but lack Israel’s option of preemption. Such states will certainly seek their own nukes. I am not sure that MAD is even theoretically stable when the number of parties is greater than 2.

  11. I make my modest living as a government drone responsible for maintaining weapons of mass destruction. You nicely summarize the feelings of myself and msot of my fellow drones.

  12. Come on guy, you are putting too much emotion into this. A nuclear bomb will never be used by the US again. To have the resolve to give that particular order requires the fortitude of men who cut their teeth during the early part of the 20th century; men who understood how quickly free societies can be swallowed by a determined enemy.

    The lack of confidence and fortitude that started in the late 1950s created the GW Bushes and Barack Obamas we see today and gives rise to your type of thinking (“But we must never forget that these things are the instruments of nightmares, and words like “deterrence” and “nuclear umbrella” and “massive retaliation” should never be allowed to hide the underlying realities”). In reality, that Minuteman/Trident is no different than the stones and sticks used by cavemen.

  13. Jb…”The lack of confidence and fortitude that started in the late 1950s created the GW Bushes and Barack Obamas we see today”…GWB and Barack Obama are scarcely in the same category on this. President Bush clearly demonstrated his willingness to use force when he thought it necessary; President Obama is broadcasting appeasement signals on every frequency at every hour of the day and night.

  14. I sincerely doubt any conflict with Iran will send oil prices upwards anymore as somebody previously mentioned above. No doubt it would affect the prices in the short term, but as to how long a hike in oil prices could last, I doubt it would be long. The Iraq war proved many soothsayers wrong, they said all kinds of things were going to happen, both at home and abroad if the USA invaded Iraq, nothing happened, only what was expected, there weren´t 10 or 20 more september 11s as they predicted, we didn´t see a increase in terrorism activity other than what has been a normality in the last one hundred years in the middle east, and not only did the US displaced a hostile, totalitarian iraqui regime successfully, but also suffocated a huge terrorist organization that had set their realms in that country and others around it, rest assured Iraq´s neighbors, Jordan and others are now feeling a lot safer after this invasion and in-house on-site terrorist clean up the USA has just performed for them.

    And why is it precisely when the US military operations have been so successful in achieving their goals in the region that Obama starts his appeasing, shoe-licking, cuasi-chamberlanian policy towards Iran? The one thing I will not be surprised now is if Hillary Clinton ends up in Teran to personally apologize for America´s values and devilish culture, that´s coming, mark my words. Even though the Obama administration is perfectly aware that the Iranians and Syrians have been and still are very actively supporting, and not only with their prayers, the criminal terrorists (read insurgents) in Iraq who were responsible for the deaths of many Iraqis and also American soldiers.

    And it just sucks that now the American office in Havana has turned off the message board, I really enjoyed that in my last trip to the island, it was the only voice against the brutal totalitarian regime that controls everything in that poor country, but Obama listens and c theaters to the Cuban regime more than to an oppressed people, the messages in the board about the lack of freedom of speech and human rights in the island were too offensive apparently for Obama´s new foreing policy, oh yes sir, this is yet another one of those satanic cow-boy-like brutal and offensive and interventionist foreign policy decisions of Bush. Obama is different.

  15. I certainly agree with your views, David, but I also see a nexus between Obama and Hillary’s Kumbaya Theory of Foreign Policy, and the recent post “The US / China Relationahip: Obama’s Conflict of Interest”

    While Hillary and Barack want to sit around holding hands with the Iranians, Syrians, Palistinians, Cubans and the North Koreans, the practice of tip toeing around North Korea for fear of offending the Chinese pre-dates Obama.

    Talking loudly and carrying a vey small stick was the Bush model with his 6 party talks. It is a clear demonstration of how our global authority is a function of our economic strength, rather than our military power or our principles. The more dependent we become on foreign energy and foreign manufacturing, and the more in debt we go to finance that give-away, the fewer options we will have in dealing with threats from rogue states. At the pace we are going economically, it won’t be long before Kumbaya is the only foreign policy tool left.

  16. David, it was an electronic ticker set up during the Bush administration, the electronic board was broadcasting world news, phrases from the human rights universal declarations and fragments of speeches of Martin Luther King.
    The messages infuriated Fidel Castro at the time, and he decided to build a flag monument right in front of the American office in order to block the view of these messages to the public.
    When I was there last year, I didn´t noticed it at first because of the numerous Cuban flags and also numerous and really sick anti-american ranting billboards the Cuban authorities set up around the office. My Cuban friend had to tell me about it and then we walked passed through the flag monument and it was then when I was able to see the electronic ticker, but you really needed to make an effort to see it, of course my Cuban friend had to stay behind for fear of the ever watchful Cuban secret service, the simple act of approaching the office just to read the board is enough for him to lose his job, be declared a traitor to the revolution and get thrown in jail for years.
    While the electronic board did not offend Cuba or Cubans at all, it simply read stuff about human rights and news, the anti-american billboards set up around the office by the castro regime were really offensive and low-class.
    It was also pathetic to to see Fidel Castro and crying and denouncing this as an aggression and humiliation to Cuban sovereignty by the American imperialists.

  17. Whenever I hear a pol talk about “more effective” sanctions or “sending a message” I cringe, because the only message they are sending is that all they will do is send messages.

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